Organisational culture: The conference hosted by the Institute for Mindfulness in SA heard that people speak if they are invited to and if someone is listening. Picture: MARWAAN SASMAN
Organisational culture: The conference hosted by the Institute for Mindfulness in SA heard that people speak if they are invited to and if someone is listening. Picture: MARWAAN SASMAN

Speaking truth to power is a matter of individual and organisational survival, but in SA it’s potentially lethal.

Mindfulness leaders from around the world congregated in Maropeng in the Cradle of Humankind for a conference hosted by the Institute for Mindfulness in SA (Imisa) in March. 

Megan Reitz, professor of leadership and dialogue at Ashridge-Hult Business School in the UK, displayed the logos of organisations that have made — or are likely to make — headline news because of corporate scandals and pointed out that what they have in common is their conversational habits.

Scandal-free organisations that make it onto the Forbes list typically have an organisational culture that allows people to stick up their hand and offer a wild idea or say they think the company is doing something wrong, Reitz said.

‘We were trained in a zoo but now operate in a jungle.’ In this environment long-term business plans are obsolete. The business environment is fast-changing and dynamic and junior staff are often the ones in contact with reality and in the best position to give vital feedback.

Speaking up is relational: people speak if they are invited to and if someone is listening, Reitz said. Company leaders frequently ask her to encourage their staff to speak up, but the staff tell her the last time somebody spoke up they disappeared.

Complexity and mindfulness coach Casper Oelofsen said in Europe fear of speaking out is most likely because of fear of getting fired or of posing a threat to one’s leader, but in most SA cultures, you shut up and do as you are told.

Reitz described typical blind spots and the skills that can be cultivated to disrupt entrenched conversational patterns and speak one’s truth. Obstacles include prejudice, titles that intimidate and “imposter syndrome” — the inner critic that holds us back.

Speaking and listening are “negotiated and travelled in perceptions of power”, Reitz said. If senior executives ask for feedback from staff in a restructuring process and there is confusion about the power system or the agendas, or who is going to end up at the top of the organisation, they are likely to be met with silence.

“We were trained in a zoo but now operate in a jungle,” Oelofsen said, quoting Sonja Blignaut. “In this environment long-term business plans are obsolete. The business environment is fast-changing and dynamic and junior staff are often the ones in contact with reality and in the best position to give vital feedback.”

Uncertainty and powerlessness are pervasive, especially among mid-level employees who are bonded to the hilt and for whom destitution is a pay cheque away. High levels of stress and depression are a “time bomb”, Oelofsen said.

He described three mindfulness principles for surviving in a “complex adaptive system”, using an analogy of a traffic roundabout: know yourself (who you can bump into); know the other (who can bump into you); and follow the bigger system (know the context).

Reitz said organisations are paralysed by abdication because of reluctance to speak up and “listen up”.

Oelofsen pointed out that in SA most employees feel their opinion doesn’t matter and they are trapped in a system that allows them to only speak to their peers and their boss. If people do speak out, they are not heard, he said. “An employee may be willing to take a risk, even to risk his or her life if they know something is going to happen, but 90% of the time people speak their truth and nothing happens.”

Power needs to talk to the people, Oelofsen insists, and ultimately the survival of organisations will depend on this. He cites the example of former CEO of Investec, Stephen Koseff, who would often sit in the reception area of the head office building between 7am and 9am, greeting and chatting to employees as they entered.

Effective leadership is a “contact sport”, according to Oelofsen, and mindfulness teaches us to be in contact with ourselves and therefore in contact with others.

Nobantu Mpotulo shared a panel with mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn and Jay Naidoo, whose political history has brought him to the realisation that social transformation without personal transformation does not produce justice. Mpotulo, a leadership development practitioner in the business world, believes millennials, who are not afraid to take risks and are not short of job opportunities, offer hope of transformation. However, companies do not find it easy to accommodate them. 

“The irony is that as these young people gain confidence, they bring in more profits for the company because of the way they interact with the clients. The clients are excited by the new voices.” Companies are being forced to listen to interactions at this level because they translate into the bottomline, Mpotulo said.

Mindfulness practice brings unconscious bias to light at leadership level, and in the young at the bottom of ranks, it gives insight into how organisations function, Mpotulo said.

Reitz said: “In the middle of a conversational habit, when we find ourselves just about to do what we normally do, or to silence ourselves, our mindfulness training gives us the capacity to pause long enough not to give in to a habitual reaction. Our capacity to interrupt our conversational habits by altering what we say and who is heard can transform our organisational culture.”